First impressions matter.
Whereas favorable first impressions can serve as the foundation of a prosperous relationship, poor first impressions can be nearly impossible to undo.
For school leaders assuming a new position, few first impressions are more important than the initial all-staff meeting. When I became a superintendent, I wanted to make our first gathering extra special so we took all 250 employees to a nearby convention center for a "Back-to-School Celebration" a week before school started.
As a relatively young superintendent (36 years old), I felt pressure to show I could effectively lead the district despite my age. Hoping to set a tone of competence and confidence, I crafted an introductory speech outlining my educational history, work accomplishments, leadership philosophy, and long-term goals.
The day before the celebration I met a mentor for lunch. During our conversation, he encouraged me to provide an overview of my introductory message. Eager for feedback, I summarized the speech, explaining my intent was to appear highly-skilled and self-assured to compensate for my inexperience.
To my surprise, the mentor pushed back on my thinking. While he agreed there were solid aspects to the speech, he offered an alternate suggestion. Whereas most leaders believe introductions are a time to ooze confidence, he proposed I utilize a more down-to-earth approach.
"Don't forget to show them you're human," he advised. "Vulnerability isn't a bad thing."
That night I barely slept. Already anxious for the following day, the mentor's advice to modify the message did nothing to calm my nerves.
"Vulnerability ... the first time I meet these people?" I thought as I laid in bed. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
The next morning I woke up more receptive to the mentor's recommendation. I went to the office early and added several childhood photos to the presentation. Along with those images, I outlined a few personal stories to share if the opportunity arose.
Minutes before the presentation I was incredibly anxious. “If I bomb this . . . the staff will hate me . . . and then I’ ll get fired . . . and then I’ ll be living in the streets,” I worried as staff grabbed their coffee and found their seats.
When the event began my nerves on full display. I rushed through the welcome and stumbled over new staff introductions. After a few words from the Teachers' Association president and the Scholarship Committee chair, the floor was mine.
I began with the canned "I'm excited for this opportunity" and "the community has been incredible" words most new leaders share. Next, I did the traditional "here is my work experience in chronological order" bit.
As I finished reciting my path from high school math teacher to high school principal, I quickly glanced at the audience. They sat quiet and expressionless. While they weren't booing me off the stage or throwing tomatoes (is this really a thing?), I was hoping for a little more enthusiasm in their body language.
Eager to break the tension, I followed the mentor's advice and began describing my upbringing. Flipping through a number of childhood school photos, I made fun of my elementary wardrobe choices, middle school haircuts, and acne-ridden high school days.
Immediately, the pressure in the room diminished. Staff were smiling, laughing, and entertained with the content. The more I let my guard down, the more the staff was open to the message. Sensing the momentum, I began sharing how pivotal life moments impacted my life as an adult.
I admitted kids used to call me “Opie” (from the Andy Griffith Show) because I was scrawny redhead with big ears, and how this teasing resulted in self-confidence issues. Later, I discussed the night my parents shared they were getting a divorce, and how this bombshell altered our family dynamics. Finally, I described my ongoing battle with anxiety, and how panic attacks riddled my life as an adult.
After the personal stories, I transitioned into my "original" presentation. We covered everything from my leadership philosophy, to long-term goals for the district, to a group activity focused on growth mindset.
After the dust settled from the all-day event, I sat down and opened my email. To my delight, I received numerous positive messages about the presentation. But it wasn’t the educational buzzwords or the fresh initiatives the staff applauded. It had been the moments of vulnerability they appreciated.
“Just wanted to thank you for a great presentation yesterday,” said one email. “We haven’t had a superintendent lead an hour of professional development in 20 years. Everyone left with the most positive attitude we’ve had here in a long time. Great job!”
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown advises, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” As leaders, we are often taught to keep a distance and project an image of confidence, competence, and authority. However, it is vulnerability that is the source of human connection.
As leaders, we are often taught to keep a distance and project an image of confidence, competence, and authority. However, it is vulnerability and authenticity that are the source of human connection.
The next time you get a chance for a first impression, consider the following:
Share your screwups.
Laugh at yourself.
Admit your faults.
A little vulnerability goes a long way.
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